• Eric Cooter

SERMON 10/30/11 Pentecost 20A


Matthew 23:1-12

Reading and studying scripture without an understanding of the culture of first century Palestine can leave us a bit befuddled. There are two cultural and social norms in today’s gospel that we need to clarify so we can fully understand what is going on. In referring to the religious leaders, Jesus mentioned to the crowds, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” “Phylacteries from Ancient Greek phylacterion are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a “sign” and “remembrance” that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefillin The other traditional norm relates to the “fringes” (tzitzits) to which Jesus referred. The “Hebrew noun tzitzit is the name for specially knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews. Tzitzit are attached to the four corners of the tallit (prayer shawl) and tallit katan. According to the Torah, the purpose of wearing tzitzit is to remind Jews of their religious obligations.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzitzit.

The purpose of these outwards signs of devotion was not to draw preferential, social, self-admiring attention to the wearer, but their purpose was to remind the people of the inward, heart-focused work of God. In some cases, these practices lost their original purpose. We have an example of something similar to this today. I must admit that we clergy put a lot of time and effort into how we dress and on the accoutrements of our vocation. One of the most humorous sideshows I recall during my tenure at seminary was the day the Almy or Whipple sales representatives came to sell their clergy shirts and other liturgical wares. I have never seen so many theological scholars drool over high priced, finely tailored clergy shirts and blouses, handmade stoles and chasubles, and other fanciful chancel clothing and accessories. When the flash and color of all that stuff was hung in our student lounge and all those seminarians were trying on the wares, it was like watching a dress rehearsal for “Dancing with the Stars.” I must admit, I was right there in the middle of that drama.

Now, we Americans are not without our obsessions with outer appearances. We judge and are judged by where we live, what we drive, and what we wear. A man went to a local golf shop and bought a new golf shirt, a nice new golf hat, a set of the finest clubs available, and new pair of “top of the line” Nike golf shoes. He spends well over $500 on his accessories in anticipation of his next day on the course. When his regular foursome saw him decked out, some said, “My Fred, you look great. Have you lost weight?” Another friend commented, “I really like those new shoes you have on.” Another said, “Does that shirt come with sun block built in?” Fred was beaming with pride at his new professional and stylish golf look. Nonetheless, Fred’s game had not changed at all from the last time these four friends gathered on the greens. Every shot Fred made was a slice, every putt missed its mark, and every one of his new high trajectory golf balls was lost; but he looked good. Sounds like the last time I played the game. The point is, Fred was committed to taking care of the outside features of his game, but he refused to do the hard work of practice and taking lessons, so the true golfer inside might come forth. In the gospel reading today, Jesus challenges us to consider that our outward actions should be reflections of our inward self. He cautioned the crowds about falling into the trap of allowing the external to be a show and not a mirror into the soul. Jesus was admonishing the hearers, all the hearers of his words; to examine our lives and ask is there dissimilarity between our words and deeds. In other words, we need to insure that there is a congruence between one’s words and one’s deeds.

We struggle with the hard work of discipleship. We hear the words “love God and love neighbor,” but we all fall short. It is not in the falling short as we respond to Our Lord’s teaching that indicates an empty outward show, it is when we fail even to try. Better yet, like our golfer friend Fred, it is when we hear the call to discipleship and refuse to do the hard work of preparing ourselves for God’s work in and through us. We must be willing to participate in the work of our own sanctification. In our tradition, sanctification refers to an ongoing process of the work of the Holy Spirit that began at our baptism, and continues as we grow into the fullness of the redeemed life. Each week in the Eucharistic prayers we hear, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.” (Eucharistic Prayer A, BCP, p.363) Another Eucharistic prayer emphasizes, “We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in this sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Eucharistic Prayer B, BCP, p. 369) Our journey of faith does not end at our baptism; it is the point at which it began. We are being sanctified and it is through this sanctification that our words and actions become congruent. Notice that the first prayer connects sanctification with action, but our growth into the fullness of the redeemed life is not something forced upon us. We do have the choice.

We can choose to grow into that for which the work of the Spirit has begun in us; or not. If we but humble ourselves and allow that work to take place in and through us, we will be transformed. Our outward actions, words, service, and worship should all be manifestations of the Spirit in us. Not as social signs for public accolades, but as outward responses to God’s abundant grace. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is only appropriate if it includes this minor correction: “Actions stemming from the heart, overflowing from love, say more than mere words can ever portray.” Our Lord, clearly, concisely, and passionately, with outstretched arms on a cross said to the world, “I LOVE YOU … this much.” We are to follow the teacher and it begins with action; action in response to love. Sitting in the doctor’s office, a young mother was experiencing unimaginable pain as she learned that her spouse’s life hung in the brink. Then came the text from her best friend. It said, “I was thinking of you today. I want you to know how special you are to me. I sensed that you needed encouragement and the blessings of peace, so please hang in there and know that you are a precious child of God.” The Spirit moves and breathes in and through us. We can let our life be an instrument of the love. We can follow the teacher who loved so great, loved so abundantly, whose love never ends. We have the choice to act in love and satisfy the longing of a hurting world.

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